Embrace Identity Discomfort

Here’s the dirty little secret about life:  To live well, you have to feel some pain. We’re a culture obsessed with pleasure. With maximizing good feelings and minimizing bad ones. With attaining the yin and not the yang (or is it the yang and not the yin?). Our fixation leaves us frustrated, unhappy, and lost. Especially in the career search.

Yin Yang Candy

If there’s one thing we know about forging an identity it’s that the process hurts. Sometimes a lot. And finding a career, if you do it right, is all about finding who you really are.

Yesterday a sophomore came into my office. She looked beat down and unsettled. She told me she’d been thinking a lot over winter break, debating whether her major and minor were right for her; questioning her assumption that her parents’ interests should dictate her own; wondering which of the thousands of careers available, if any, sounded even remotely worth pursuing for a lifetime.

When she finished, I said, “Congratulations. You’re doing the hard work. This is exactly what you should be doing right now – getting confused, feeling lost. I know it feels awful, but congratulations. You’re there.”

She looked at me like I had just named Lance Armstrong Ambassador of Honesty and Integrity.

She may have thought I was crazy but, man, I wish someone had said that to me ten years ago. I thought something was wrong with me for feeling like my student does now. Throughout college, grad school, and deep into my twenties, I had bouts of severe questioning about my path and my passions. It was uncomfortable – to put it mildly – to have no road map before me, and it felt like every time I allowed myself to really touch the questions - to grab them and stare at them and realize all that I did not know - the road before me only got blurrier instead of clearer. I was certain these were signs of depression. I was convinced I was on the cusp of mental breakdown.

Far from it.

Here’s what we know from developmental psych:  to attain an identity - a true, genuine sense of who you are – you have to go through a crisis. There’s no other way to get there. You can try to cheat your way to an identity by stealing someone else’s (e.g., a parent’s), but that doesn’t hold up in the long run. Eventually, at some juncture, you’re going to have to go through a period of actively questioning, of exploring options, of releasing paths that aren’t right for you. That process - and the very notion of "crisis" - get a bum wrap in our culture.

Instead of pushing back in my moments of bewilderment, instead of labeling myself and searching for a “cure,” I should have lived the questions. I should have embraced the fact that clarity comes just after the moment of peak confusion.

Confused Eusarca (Eusarca confusaria)

Crises are healthy, especially as a twentysomething,. They mean you are developing well.

With any luck, my student’s crisis is the first of many in her life. The people who are most fulfilled, who are living the truest and most complete version of their lives, forge an identity for a time and then, as their life circumstances and perspective change, let it all shake up again. And again. And again. Psychologists call this the MAMA cycle; we enter identity a crisis (called Moratorium) and then Achieve identity, over and over throughout our lives. If we’re doing life right.

In other words, we find meaning and purpose and our sources of flow – the bedrocks of lasting happiness and its plethora of positive correlates – only by sitting in the uncomfortable pit of questioning on a regular basis.

In short, if you want to avoid having a gratifying career, dodge discomfort at all costs. When the questions well up in you, shove them aside, take some antidepressants or alcohol or drugs to dull them, put on a confident show, pretend they’re simply not there. Your career search will end before it even begins.

But if you’re in life to live it, then live it. Crises and all. And congratulate yourself for feeling so damn uncomfortable.

"I beg you...to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." – Rainer Maria Rilke

Yin Yang Candy (Photo credit: FadderUri)